Tank irrigation in Karnataka: A historical survey

Tank irrigation in Karnataka, authored by GS Dikshit, GR Kuppuswamy, SK Mohan, and first published in 1993, provides a historical overview of this ancient method of water management.

The book covers entire eras from the ancient to the current period. It also gives information about the structural, financial and institutional aspects of tank construction and management.

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Three different water management practices are described here, namely the 'phad' system of Maharashtra, a cooperative society in Gujarat and Sinchai panchayats in MP. Statistical information about the number of tanks in Mysore state from 1799-1902 and the irrigation area under channels and tanks from 1880 to 1951 are also presented. The appendices present valuable case studies about the following tanks:

  • Motitalab-Tonnurkere
  • Shantisagara or Sulekere
  • Ramasagara
  • Madag-Masur Tank
  • Daroji Tank
  • Rayarakere or Rajapuram Tank
  • Watadahosahalli Tank
  • Water supply arrangements at Bijapur and Chitradurga  

Southern India as well as the arid areas of Central and Western India have seasonal rivers which limit the scope for canal irrigation while the scope for wells is limited due to the presence of hard granite and gneisses. As a result of these, tank irrigation is prominent in these areas.

This study is primarily concerned with small reservoirs. Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have thousands of old tanks in various stages of maintenance. However, the decay of the management and reward mechanisms in place earlier have led to a corresponding decay in these tanks. While the old social systems that maintained these tanks are no longer in existence, they have not been replaced by satisfactory institutional arrangements. This book aims to learn from the history of tanks and examine their relevance to the present.

Relevance of irrigation tanks

Big dams and groundwater exploitation, which are 'mainstream' solutions to irrigation have their own drawbacks and limitations. Tanks are decentralised means of water supply and irrigation which also have other benefits, namely:

  • Flood control
  • Drought and maintaining the water table
  • Fisheries
  • Green belt


The book uses archaeological information, inscriptions, indigenous literature, travellers' accounts, and state documents.

1. Tanks

Classification of tanks: Tanks as listed in the inscriptions do not usually have an indication of the area irrigated or any such quantitative measures. However, Buchanan has described in his travelogue the functions of the tanks described variously as Katte, Kere, and Kunte. Tanks are also described as river fed or rain fed.

Parts of a tank:

The following parts of the tank and some construction aspects are described in detail. 

  • Catchment area
  • Tank bed
  • Command area
  • Bund
  • Canals
  • Sluice 
  • Waste-weir 

From here, the authors move on to choosing areas for the construction of tanks for which they begin with a description of the agro-climatic zones of Karnataka. The characteristics of the following zones are explained:

  • Coastal belt
  • Hilly belt (malnad)
  • Transition belt
  • Fry belt (maidan, bayalsime)
  • North-eastern transition belt

The pros and cons of constructing tanks in each of these zones are described. The southern part of the dry belt is reported as having the most favourable conditions as well as a pressing need for tanks. Accordingly, a large number are to be found here.

Ground water: Wells are used for irrigation in those areas where the construction of tanks is not feasible.

2. Ancient Period

Prehistoric period: This chapter speculates about the origins of water harvesting and irrigation. Water reservoirs in the Deccan plateau date back to the Chalcolithic period with the oldest water tank being in Inamgaon near Pune. This tank is dated about 1500 BC. The Megalithic people spread themselves over a large part of south India and built reservoirs as they went.

The Mauryas: By 320 BC, tank construction has led a high level of excellence. At least one dam constructed during that period by the Mauryas has lasted for over 750 years.

The book then also looks at tank construction during the following reigns:

  • Satavahanas and Chutus
  • Early Cholas
  • Kadambas
  • Early Gangas
  • Early Chalukyas
  • Rashtrakutas

The Chalukyas of Kalyana are discussed in some detail, as their reign is considered the golden age of tanks. The dynasty, as well as the tanks and canals constructed by them are discussed. It was in this period that the technique of planning a cascading series of tanks for flood control as well as irrigation was refined. Several cases of water supply such as the tanks at Bagali and the Kalyana city water supply are described. The contemporaries of the Chalukyas, the Cholas, are also mentioned. The Hoysalas are described as the greatest builders of tanks in Karnataka in the ancient period.The history of these tanks, the capital region, its neighbourhood, the management system, and the people are all mentioned.

3. Medieval period

This chapter covers the period between 1336-1799 AD. It begins with the Vijayanagar empire, where some of the biggest projects in the history of south India were initiated. One of the biggest tanks built then, the Sulekere tank is still in existence. Known now as Shantisagara, it is covered in detail in Appendix 2. A chronological narrative of the tanks built in the medieval period is presented in this chapter.

4. British period and later

It is following the commencement of the British rule, that a written record began to be maintained of the existing number of tanks, the area irrigated by them, and expenses incurred on them. This chapter studies the situation of tanks in south India from 1800-1956. Mysore State, Bombay Presidency, Bellary, Hyderabad, Coorg, South Canara are all covered. The chapter then looks at the situation since 1956, when the princely states were merged to form the political states. The decline in tank irrigation between the First Plan period (1951-56) and the Sixth (1980-85) is examined.

5. Construction and maintenance

Construction practices and guidelines for tanks as detailed over the periods are described in this chapter. An inscription belonging to the Vijayanagara period describes the twelve requirements and the six faults in tank construction. A sense of the pragmatic nature of this inscription is obtained from the first requirement, which is that of a happy and rich king desirous of acquiring permanent fame !

The authors then elaborate upon the following aspects of tank building:

  • Construction organisation
  • Bund design
  • Capacity of tanks
  • Other features such as the outlets
  • Sluices
  • Waste-weir
  • Desilting

The present status of construction is discussed. One section deals with anicuts, which are barriers that enable diversion of flood waters to adjoining lands. The regulations laid in the Arthasastra and other texts for maintenance of structures are described. The traditional institutional and financial arrangements for ensuring good maintenance are described in chronological order from 986 AD to 1987. The authors deplore the decline in maintenance of these tanks, and stress the need for people to assume ownership and responsibility of these tanks.

6. Water management and finance

Again calling on the Arthasastra and the Kunala Jataka among other documents, the authors talk of the proper regulation of water. Construction costs, public and private investment through the ages are discussed, as well as the reasons for the decline of private investment in developmental works. This section also looks at water charges through the periods beginning from the Mauryan empire to the present period. The chapter ends with the recommendation that farmers be entrusted with the maintenance of the tanks that they derive benefits from.

7. Suggestions

The authors describe the need for revival of our tank system. They stress that a comprehensive watershed development plan needs to include tanks. Traditional practices such as that of granting a small portion of land to an entrepreneur in exchange for tank construction need to be revived. A synthesis of traditional finance and management systems with modern government infrastructure and institutions may be the best means for ensuring the continuance of this unique method of irrigation and water supply.



Please right-click on the above link and select 'Save link as' to download the full book. The total size of the book is 442 MB, and the file will take between 1-2 hours to download on a broadband connection.

In case you have a slow internet connection, and are unable to download the book, please write to us at contact@indiawaterportal.org, and we will send you a CD, with the soft copy of the book by post.


The full book has also been divided and attached in 5 parts and each part can be downloaded separately.


The various parts are as follows:

Part 1: Includes cover page, contents, foreword, acknowledgements, list of illustrations, abbreviations and chapters 1 (Introduction) and 2 (Ancient period)

Part 2: Includes chapters 3 (Medieval period) and 4 (British period and later)

Part 3: Includes chapters 5 (Construction and maintenance) and 6 (Water management and finance)

Part 4: Includes chapter 7 (Suggestions) and the first 7 case studies detailed in appendices

Part 5: Includes case study 8 of appendices, tables, water management practices, bibliography, glossary and index


We are grateful to Anupam Mishra, Gandhi Peace Foundation, for referring us to this valuable resource, and obtaining permission from the authors to post the full book on India Water Portal, for the benefit of our readers.


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